The Tripping Point

Malcolm Gladwell introduced us to the concept of “The Tipping Point” in his 2000 book.  He defines a tipping point as the “the level at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable.”  We’ve all lately seen vivid examples of when a tipping point has been reached: the demise of Wachovia—who’d have thought that was a probability 2 years ago?!  The death of the house that Madoff built, unfortunately, as a house of cards that met the unstoppable momentum for change.  And 9/11, the defining moment of our generation, a time when the flattening of the world was consummated.  Such are but a few stark examples of the inevitability of change and the inability of anyone or anything to alter or deflect it away.

There’s another point I use with family business clients that I call the “tripping point”.  Attitudes, behaviors, animosities, and jealousies have been swept under the proverbial rug for so long the lump can no longer just be stepped over and ignored; it’s so big now it will trip you up.

Working with a client this week I watched and facilitated while two couples, related by blood and property decided the time had come to no longer jointly own an inherited piece of property.  One of brothers said, “Uncle Jake said there would come a day when this property will no longer be owned together by family.  I think today is that day.”  An inaudible sigh of relief, tinged with sadness, filled the room in that moment.  As so many families do, unspoken assumptions have led to hard feelings and strained relationships.  The good news is for this family, it’s not too late.  While the relationships are damaged, they are certainly not beyond repair.

During the third year of working with my father I’d had all the fun I could stand.  The relationship sucked and the strain of working together had become almost too much for both of us.  I wanted to go to seminary and get out of his world.  Instead, after some intense help from the outside and some contemplation of what I would lose if I did that, I decided to have “the conversation”– the conversation we all dread and therefore rarely risk.  I made an appointment with him and let him have it.  For an hour and a half I unleashed all the debris I had swept under the rug, not just for these 3 years but for 30 years.  It was now or never and in the end I had nothing left to lose: if it didn’t get better I would leave or get fired; if it got better I was ahead of the game.

It worked.  Taking the risk to speak up, to no longer be able to sweep my feelings aside and play like they didn’t exist, made all the difference.  The lump, while still present, was much smaller.  Dad and I worked together very successfully for another 12 years until his death.  Ask yourself: is the short term discomfort of “the conversation” worth the potential freedom and life improvement of taking the risk?  If the discomfort is too much and you don’t speak up, you’ve made your choice, quit complaining.  If you risk the short term discomfort, you may just find a wealth of long term good as you emerge into a new way of life.

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